Note: Last year, some 10 million people were victims of identity theft, and some estimates claim as many as 1 in 10 Americans have been hit by the crime in recent years. MSNBC.com's Bob Sullivan explores the digital epidemic in a new book, "Your Evil Twin." Chapter 1 begins with confessions from perhaps the world's most infamous ID thief, James Rinaldo Jackson, who seemingly impersonated half of Wall Street and half of Hollywood during his 20-year career.
“It’s so very simple to be anyone you please, on any given morning you awake.” —James Rinaldo Jackson
As the CEO of a Hollywood studio, Terry Semel certainly didn’t want to be bothered at home by budding writers peddling twobit scripts. His home phone number was unlisted. His assistants at Warner Bros. knew better than to give out his address. In 1993, well before the popularization of the Internet, before fan stalker web sites existed, before nationwide telephone lookups were just a few mouse clicks away, maintaining an unlisted number offered reasonable protection against crackpots and fanatics.
So Semel, today the CEO of Yahoo! Inc., must have been surprised that day in 1993 when a Federal Express package arrived at his home. Inside was, of course, a movie pitch from a wouldbe screen writer. Film producers are used to seeing all manner of desperate attempts to get their attention, but this pitch was very different. As Semel shuffled through the papers, perhaps he realized that he was staring at a shocking mirror of himself, or rather, of his financial self. Somehow, the screenwriter had sent Semel a copy of his Social Security number, bank account number, credit card number, and part of his credit report. And that was just the beginning. Semel turned the pages and found dozens of other digital dossiers, all manner of personal data not meant for his eyes belonging to a Who’s Who in Hollywood: Steven Segal, Mel Gibson, Michael Ovitz, Danny DeVito, Sydney Pollack, Leonard Nimoy, and the screenwriter’s favorite, Steven Spielberg. Next to each name were private financial account numbers, mother’s maiden names, itemized purchases from credit card billing statements, and more.
“There are leaks in the system,” the letter said. The author was an inmate at the Millington, Tennessee, federal prison camp. The prisoner wanted a movie deal. But with the offer came what sounded like a warning: Someone is planning to commit a massive fraud against all these famous people, it said. Lawrence Tisch, Arsenio Hall, Tom Cruise, Lew Wasserman, Alan Ladd, and many others. They were all on a hit list. Someone should do something. Perhaps a movie would help. The prisoner understood better than most what was about to happen to our digital world. His tone in this letter was at once childlike and prophetic. In one breath, he pitches his wife “Princess” and his friends for roles in the movie. In the next, he describes the coming billion-dollar crisis. Perhaps that’s why no one took the June 1, 1993, correspondence very seriously.
“Millions of citizens across America have been or will become victims of fraudulent activities caused by other criminal-minded individuals,” he wrote. “In other aspects, illegal purchases of real estate, expensive automobiles, and fine jewelry and easy access to other people’s bank accounts, credit cards. . . . It’s time for these matters to be dealt with on a more realistic basis and put to a screeching halt.”
A Spielberg fan
James Rinaldo Jackson is, among other things, a Steven Spielberg fanatic. Such a fanatic, in fact, that for an entire year in the mid-1990s, he knew everything Spielberg purchased on his American Express card. “He has awesome taste, class, and style you won’t believe,” Jackson says now about Spielberg.
Everything Jackson learned about Spielberg, he learned while in prison, much of it using a cell phone supplied by a family member. Jackson says he never tried to steal anything from the famous Hollywood director. He just wanted to snoop. “When you like and admire someone of his phenomenal talent, you don’t even attempt to step on his shoes,” he said. But you might drop his name, and some personal data, to get the attention of a big movie producer. Just a few calls while in the care of the federal prison system, and Jackson scored all sorts of data on Spielberg and about 100 other Hollywood types. All in a single day’s work.
He started by calling the Screen Actors Guild and tricking an operator into sharing the name of the guild’s health care insurance provider. Then he called the provider’s toll-free number and pretended to be an administrator at a medical provider looking to verify coverage for billing purposes. Helpful operators spat back Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, and other private information. “All I needed was a name,” he said. Then, he would start his “prowl.”
“I called up American Express. The rep asked me for my account number when I gave him my name as Steven Spielberg. He was a young-sounding guy who appeared to be overwhelmed and excited to a degree until he asked me, ‘Is this the Steven Spielberg?’ “Calmly, my reply was no. Then I said, ‘I’m mistaken for him every single day of my life.’ “So he relaxed somewhat and proceeded to ask me for my account number when I told him I didn’t have my card with me at the time. Then I remember saying something to the effect of, ‘Unfortunately I left home without mine, I’m certain the real Steven Spielberg would never do such.’ “After I told him that, he said, ‘Well, that’s okay, how about your Social Security number?’ Thanks to the Screen Actors Guild, I had that. So I called out all nine digits. Then the rep asked me for my date of birth and I gave him that. The rep then went on to say ‘How can I help you?’ I asked for my balance, which was nearly $100,000. Then the representative started to give me a detailed billing of the charges, where he had dined, establishments where the card had been used, amount of last payment, current payment due. This guy had real good taste. He spent wads of money on brand-name clothes and expensive jewelry, wined and dined at the top-of-the-line hotels. . . .”
Fraud from a jail cell
It took a year before guards discovered Jackson was committing identity fraud while behind bars. On daily outdoor work duty at a nearby military base, Jackson had only his memory of toll-free phone numbers and payphones to work with. Still, he managed to score stolen credit card accounts and other funds from a host of wealthy people. Other inmates helped; accomplices who stood guard while he made the phone calls were paid off with pizza, beer, Nike sneakers, jogging suits, jewelry, watches, even money, all funded by credit card accounts pilfered over the telephone. They even watched his back so he could find time alone with a blueeyed, blonde-haired female Naval officer stationed on the base. When their love affair was ratted out, he was sent to solitary confinement.
Later, he was only allowed work detail near the prison, doing simple landscaping and garbage collecting under the constant watchful eye of prison guards. But even that didn’t stop him. Jackson’s brother-in-law drove up one day, discarded a crumpled- up fast-food bag, and missed the trash. Jackson picked it up, as was the plan, and later took out the cell phone and car charger that had been left inside. He could chat on the phone while sitting in the prison’s landscaping truck, which he was still allowed to drive around the compound. He hid the phone inside the truck’s air vents when he left. The scheme worked for a few months, until Jackson got too greedy yet again—when he tried to steal thousands of dollars from Dean Witter executives, including CEO Charles Fiumeffredo, he set off red flags. It meant another two years in a federal prison, and finally, he said, “I was put inside a place with barbed wire.” Only then did he temporarily stop posing as America’s elite for his own financial gain; but it was just a temporary hiatus.
A few months after his release in 1998, he would be back at it again. His best work was still ahead of him. While he did get the thrill of being Steven Spielberg for a while, Jackson never got his movie deal. He did have several telephone conversations with an assistant to Terry Semel at Warner Brothers during several weeks in 1993, who encouraged Jackson. But shortly after that, Jackson was moved to another prison where he had no phone privileges, and he lost contact with the movie studio. “I didn’t get the movie deal because identity theft wasn’t a major concern . . . back then,” Jackson said. “I felt then it would eventually become a fast-growing crime in America. And it did!” As if to fulfill his own prophesy, Jackson ended up scamming some of the famous people on the list he sent to Semel. Many never knew Jackson was the culprit, even though he should have been an obvious suspect, given the typewritten preconfession. Victims from the Semel letter include Robert and Patricia Stemple, then CEO of General Motors; and CBS’s Lawrence Tisch. “I’m extremely remorseful,” he says now, addressing the victims. “Please forgive me.”
Obsessed with Elvis
James Rinaldo Jackson had an unusual childhood for Memphis, Tennessee in the 1960s. His mother was black and his father white; at school, he was quickly given the nickname, “Zebra,” and it stuck. The teasing was painful, but young James turned the tables by embracing the label. At times, he remembers refusing to answer when his parents called him James–he insisted that his name was “Zebra.” Then, when he was given a guitar for Christmas, he began imagining he was a member of the Beatles. Call me John, Paul, or Ringo, he demanded. Like many kids, he would break out in song, blaring, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” and not always at the most appropriate of times. His parents laughed it off; his babysitter spanked him when she got irritated, but no one really took notice how much energy James put into being other people. Or how good he was getting at it.
His musical affections quickly turned local, and Elvis became the target of his obsession. By the time he was 12, he insisted on eating jelly donuts, peanut butter sandwiches topped with banana slices, and wearing blue suede shoes for special occasions. One day, his father told him, gently, that “God made you and there’s only one you in the whole wide world,” attempting to urge the boy to start to find his own personality. But it was devastating for James, who realized then that there must be only one Elvis, too. He says he burst into tears at the kindly remark. “That man doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” James remembers thinking. “He’s got life all wrong.”
By a stroke of luck, Jackson attended Humes Jr. High, where Elvis had attended high school. The obsession became complete. He even imagined he was shitting in the same place Elvis did. “I wanted to say that I sat bare butt on the same toilet (Elvis had), to describe the wonderful feeling of sensation from the rim of a commode where Elvis sat,” Jackson wrote in a private memoir he hopes to publish some day. He would end up in detention for creating disruptions as he broke out into Elvis songs during school.
Just as James was about to reach high school, his father died suddenly. Now he felt he had something else in common with The King, who had lost his mother when he was still young. James remembers staring at Elvis’ retired football jersey in the school’s trophy case, crying, and singing “That’s Allright Mama” to himself. He prayed for his dad and his mom, and soon vowed to transfer schools so he could get away from his overwhelming desire to be someone else. But his attempt at self-rehabilitation didn’t last, because right about then he learned that he could make good money pretending to be other people. And with his father now gone, his mother sure could use the help.
It began innocently enough. The golden age of rock-and-roll radio brought with it intense competition and stations quickly learned the best way to steal listeners from each other was to pay them. Cash giveaways and other prize games were everywhere. Just by knowing what songs the stations were playing, and calling at the right time, James could win $300 at a clip.
Sometimes he won five prizes a day, calling shows in the morning before school. His most prized winnings at the time was a ladies’ Wittnauer watch worth $150, which he was able to give his mom as a present when he was only 15 years old. Of course, 15-year-olds weren’t supposed to win; and no one was eligible to win contests repeatedly each day. James says he beat the system by setting up a bank of telephones at home and quick-dialing them repeatedly, by hand, so he could be caller number 10. Then, when he won, he would disguise his voice–sometimes as a 90-year-old grandmother, sometimes a young, excitable woman. And he would use various names and addresses all over town. Next, he’d simply wait for the valuable mail to arrive, sneak into the mailbox, and collect his winnings. He also won free blenders, toasters, grills, kitchen ware and other appliances for his family. At the time, he felt “the ability to talk my way out of anything I wanted or for that matter, talk my way into retrieving anything I wanted, too.”
Jackson didn’t last long in college; instead, his true college was the University Club of Memphis, where he waited tables on the rich and famous from his teen years to his early 20s. Charming, exceedingly polite, and patient, he learned how to talk the way powerful people talk, with confidence and back-slapping humor always at ready disposal. He also learned to dislike the smug elite, and he acquired a taste for outsmarting people who were supposed to be smarter than him. From the Federal Correctional Institution in Forrest City, Arkansas, where he is serving an 8-year term for his most recent frauds, Jackson, for the first time, offered elaborate details of his 15-year identity fraud crime spree. Fueled by a burning desire to demonstrate that he is sorry for his crimes, which could reduce his prison term, Jackson agreed to a lenghthy set of correspondence interviews, offering an intimate look at criminal imposters and the broken systems that enable them. “It’s 7:06 A.M., I’ve had my M&Ms, it’s time to exert some positive energy,” he wrote. The perfectly typed, single-spaced letters of about four thousand words each could have as few as two paragraphs and contained even fewer typing mistakes. “As the ole saying goes, the early bird gets the worm. . . .”
An Oprah fan
To say that Jackson is starstruck would be quite an understatement. In the early 1990s, just as Oprah Winfrey’s stock was headed from star to superstar, Jackson learned that Oprah’s father owned a barbershop in Nashville, a couple of hundred miles away from Memphis. No matter; Jackson decided he just had to have his hair cut by Vernon Winfrey. More than a decade later, he still remembers their first encounter in vivid detail. One of the other barbers had an open chair and offered it to him; he refused, of course. When Winfrey’s chair came open, he turned on the charm. “I’ve never had my hair cut by the father of a famous daughter,” Jackson said, getting just a little laugh.
Then, the two bantered back and forth about Jackson’s hometown of Memphis and Winfrey’s whimsical idea that the city should really be part of Mississippi. After all, Oprah was born in Mississippi. Jackson remembers driving to the barbershop in his stolen pearl-white Mercedes Benz 420 SEL. Winfrey, who noticed the car, said his daughter had recently bought him a similar Mercedes, a 560 SEL with heated seats and a bigger engine. He didn’t like driving it, though, because it didn’t fit in well with the neighborhood, a poor section of Music City. Eventually, Jackson learned Winfrey still lived in the tough area, which Jackson called “the hood,” despite Oprah’s recent gift of an expansive, half-million-dollar mansion in the suburbs. “He told me that Oprah nearly begged him and begged him to move into the home; he kept putting it off . . . he point blank said to me, ‘James, that’s my daughter’s money and fame. I am so happy right here where I am, where I’ve been living among average, everyday kind of people nearly all my life. I don’t need all of that.’” He went on to say that Oprah had offered to buy him a brandnew barbershop, or to rebuild the one he had, but he refused.
On the Winfrey barbershop is a wall with thousands of pictures from well-wishers who have stopped by to meet the famous father. Before he left, Jackson thanked Winfrey for being gracious, shook his hand, gave Winfrey his picture, then waited to make sure it ended up on that wall. The elder Winfrey’s kindly ways probably saved his daughter a financial headache in the future. Jackson, a sort of digital-age Robin Hood, declared Oprah off-limits after the visit. “He was an amazingly warm and sensible gentleman that I grew to love, admire, and respect all because he treated me like a customer who was there spending a million bucks on fine, fine jewels,” Jackson says now. “It made me not ever want to commit an identity theft crime against anyone that had close ties to Mr. Winfrey.” Others among the world’s famous and elite weren’t so lucky.
He started small, rigging car accident claims involving rented cars in the late 1980s. With a band of disciples in tow, he honed that craft and ultimately staged some 50 accidents, netting the crime gang $642,000. But car accidents were hard work, and another, more lucrative money-making scheme was emerging. While working as a delivery driver for Federal Express, Jackson met a Nigerian “professor” who explained the ins and outs of the insurance industry and the methods for tricking customer service telephone operators into divulging critical data on anyone. Watching CNN one night in the late 1980s, he saw Time Warner’s Gerald Levine being interviewed and decided to give it a whirl. Moments later, he had a full digital dossier on Levine. It was as easy as lying to the man’s health insurance company. Within two years, Jackson had worked his way through much of corporate America, impersonating such luminaries as Edward Brennan, CEO of Sears, Charles Lebreque, former head of Chase, and about 25 other CEOs, which he still won’t discuss.
But he had his biggest early score by hitting a victim in his own backyard. The Belz family is one of the most influential real estate developers in the south—certainly in Memphis, Tennessee, where the family owns a series of malls and office complexes. But no one noticed in 1990 when Jackson stole a letter addressed to Jack Belz, then CEO of Belz Associates, and applied for a credit card in Belz’s name. He managed some $116,000 in purchases and cash withdrawals on credit cards in Belz’s name before he was finally stopped.
In the meantime, he was living in style, chilling in a $150,000 home he had purchased in Georgia using a false ID. He had amassed an impressive fleet of luxury cars via identity theft. In addition to the Mercedes, he had a Lincoln Continental, a BMW, and a Nissan Pathfinder. A Corvette he once owned had been exchanged for a Lotus Esprit SE. The women came easily, too, especially when he wasn’t paying. Jackson says he regularly carried FBI and U.S. Marshal Service credentials that often earned him free sex. When he checked into hotels, he got into the habit of flipping through the yellow pages and calling a local escort service, ordering one or two girls at a time. When he was finished with them, he’d let them dress and then flash a badge “smack dab in the middle of their face,” read them their rights, and announce a sting. He’d offer to let the girls go if they returned his money. He’d even make a crank call and carry the gag further, until they returned the cash. “It worked like a charm 99.5 percent of the times I pulled this scheme,” he wrote. “The other 0.5 percent nearly cost me my life.”
Beginning of the end
While pimps never caught up with Jackson, the cops eventually did. Law enforcement agencies began to circle Jackson in late 1990, and his world would begin to unravel the next year. Insurance investigators from Geico and a local furniture store he had bilked had him arrested. But perhaps as a bit of poetic license, his first conviction involved theft of airline travel, using a technique not unlike that of famed impersonator Frank Abignale. Jackson had assumed the identity of a Federal Express employee with the same name and had been flying around the country for under $50, round trip, using the other Jackson’s employee discounts. When he was arrested, federal authorities also found a $55,000 Cadillac Allante and a $40,000 Lexus in his driveway, both purchased using fake Social Security numbers. Court documents indicate he was arrested with a series of credit cards under assumed names, including “those of top executives of major U.S. corporations.”
While awaiting trial, Jackson continued to show his ability to acquire hard-to-find information. The master imposter sought revenge against the FBI agent who helped catch him, reporting a domestic disturbance at the agent’s home. Jackson called from jail, telling dispatchers someone had been stabbed inside the agent’s home during a family fight. The address was supposed to be a federal secret. But soon a sheriff, an ambulance, and several fire trucks were outside the agent’s home. He messed with my family, I’ll mess with his, Jackson said at the time, according to court documents.
Later, to convince Judge Julia Smith Gibbons that conditions inside the jail where he was being held were unlivable, Jackson sent a box full of bugs, which were gathered in his cell, to the judge’s home. Thanks in part to such jail-cell shenanigans, he found himself in federal custody for the next seven years.
For more information, visit YourEvilTwin.net
Excerpted from "Your Evil Twin: Behind the Identity Theft Epidemic" by Bob Sullivan. Copyright© 2004 by Bob Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.